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Content Ratings on Books? George Orwell’s Worst Nightmare.

While perusing the forums over on Amazon.com, I came across a discussion labeled: “Should there be content ratings on Amazon?” (here)  I immediately cringed before I even clicked on the link.  Visions of 1984 began running through my mind.  My first response to this was: who would be responsible for the ratings?

If you read my recent blog post about the new Mortal Kombat video game (here), you know how I feel about the government trying to get involved in the ratings of video games that is currently very well managed internally by the industry via the ESRB.  The government taking over content ratings would be a slippery slope right down the future that George Orwell feared when he wrote 1984.  How would the content ratings be determined?

The MPAA and ESRB are able to set guidelines based on what occurs visually or audibly on the screen.  I could definitely see it easy to explore content ratings based on, say, language.  Well, there’s an F-bomb, up that rating to 16+.  Easy.  How about an issue with violence, though.  For example, take the following random sentence:

“The knight stabbed the villain’s stomach with his sword.”

To borrow the MPAA ratings terminology, is that R-rated violence or PG-rated violence?  The beauty of books is that each reader will picture that slightly differently.  If you’re macabre, you may picture blood, guts, and other such gore.  If you’re a little more innocent, you might picture less of such things.  Who determines violence level in books, then?  I would have the same argument in terms of sexual content.

So, clearly, a governing body (which the publishing industry, unlike the film and gaming industries, does not have set up) to create content is not the answer.  Who, then, would be responsible?  Each publisher tries to classify their books as best as they can to the audience that would want to purchase them.  An erotica book would not sell if classified as young adult and vice versa.  I would never try to sell my books to someone who only reads trashy romance novels, either.  It’s just bad business and a waste of efforts.

To answer the original post, though, the adding of “content ratings” to Amazon is ultimately superfluous, because two of the things that make Amazon such a consumer-friendly place to shop in the first place are the customer reviews and tagging system.  If you are Christian and are afraid of exposing your children to anti-Christian themes (like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), just read the reviews.  You’ll find it very easy to see reviewers discussing the atheist themes that Pullman uses.

Why propose a new system when the current one works?  The answer is that parents don’t want to have to read and think and make decisions on their own anymore (see my blog post about Disney World & Kid Leashes for a different rant about lazy parents).  They want a big black sticker on the cover that says “BAD” to make parental decisions for them.  Instead, maybe parents should actually take an interest in what their kids are watching, playing, or reading and see for themselves if they agree with the content.  Or, at the end of the day, maybe you should just be happy they’re actually reading a book in this day and age–regardless of content.

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  1. I love that you’re so passionate about the topic that it spurred a blog post. I’m a little surprised, however, that your mind immediately went to a governing body that would assign the content ratings. Currently, it’s readers and publishers/authors who tag (or label) a book. Why wouldn’t we expect that readers and publihers/authors could assign content ratings as well?

    Just like the tagging system on Amazon now, what if there were a way for a reader to indicate their perception of the sex, language, violence, etc in a book? They could even add their own labels to be rated (like religion, as you mentioned).

    Maybe we just need to think outside the box!

    1. I have zero issues with the concept as you propose it, Cyndi. My point was simply that the Amazon structure really already covers things like that. Also, who would determine the level of sex, for example, is appropriate for what age.

      Would we have to apply the “base system” in the content ratings? “Well, I’m okay with my kid reading about characters going to first base but not any further!”

      Maybe I was a little extreme with where I saw this topic going, but having watched it progress in the Video Game world to the US Supreme Court, I would fear even seeing it start encroaching upon books.

      As an author and publisher, I’d hate to have to worry about that that when writing a book. Video game developers and movie makers already have to fight to get a rating they want (PG-13 movies make more money than R movies, for example). It is damaging to the creative process and not necessary, in my opinion.

    • Megan on June 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm
    • Reply

    Hey Jeremy,
    So, as you know, I am a Christian, and I actually, for the most part agree with this!!! I think parents do need to be more involved in what their children can and cannot read. I do think many are lazy. Its sad how oblivious people are, and when they do see it, they try to put the blame on anything and anyone else. When selling video games at bby, I used to alway point out the ratings to parents, and was always annoyed with how many did not care one way or the other. They are your kids, take care of them and pay attention to what is going on!!! I also get annoyed with the other direction also. Like the people who wont let their kids read Harry Potter because it deals with witchcraft. Teach your kids its a fantasy book, teach them about the religion of witchcraft, and how there is a huge difference. Problem solved! I dont believe that sheltering yourself and family from the beliefs and things around you are the right thing to do. I think you need to make yourself aware of what is around you, so you can build on why you believe what you do. I did read the His Dark Materials series, and I am glad I did. I did not keep them, as I do many of my books, but I am more aware of what is out there now.
    So yea, I am not sure if what I wrote is 100% going with what you said, but I said what I was thinking 🙂
    Meg

    1. Meg, you are what a Christian is supposed to be. I know you get agitated at the extremists in your religion that give the rest of you (which would be probably 99.9% of Christians) a bad rap. You’re too nice to punch them in the face for it, though, which further adds to you being a good representative of your faith! 😉

    • Kim on September 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm
    • Reply

    I unrderstand completely the point trying to be made here. I am by no means an advocate for censorship, but I would like to see a content rating placed on every books. I will explain why.

    Recently, I went to the library with my son. He needed a book to read for school. He is in the fifth grade. I was in the childrens section looking through fiction books. I picked a book with vampire in the title. I read the inside cover and the back of the book and suggested it to my son. He didn’t want to read it. I took it anyway. I read all kinds of books. I figured I would read this one. The title suggested to me that it was a books out vampires. Science fiction/fantasy. Well the book turned out to be about a girl who was being molested and raped by a family member who lived with her. This wastont the kind of book I wanted my child to read or that I was looking to read.

    As a parent, I cannot preread every book. When I brought up this book to the librarian, she had no idea of the content. If the people whose job it is to be incharge of the books can’t possibly know the content of every book, then how can a parent be expected to know?

    I would like to see content ratings on the back of every book.

    1. I see where you’re going with that Kim, but the only way this could work is if the industry creates a standard. With the MPAA (for movies) and the ESRB (for video games), the process is handled within the industry. The people who give the ratings do not watch EVERY movie and play through EVERY game that is created. The publishers/producers must submit snippets for the people to rate, generally relying on those publishers to submit the ‘worst’ parts for ratings purposes.

      If more information comes out that a publisher hid certain information (see the big Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas problem with video games a few years back, just google ‘hot coffee mod’ to find it), it could lead to fines and a change in rating (which would be a very expensive recall/repackaging issue), so it usually isn’t an issue.

      My point is that it is not as simple as slapping a big black warning sticker on a book. What is offensive to one person may not be offensive to others. Where do we draw the line? Sure, things like vulgar language or extreme violence or extreme sexual themes are easy to pinpoint. What about anti-Christian themes? Would Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code receive censorship ratings because it would offend Catholics? Better to rely on existing customer-based review systems like on Amazon.com or Goodreads.com. They already handle the work for you and you can learn really quickly with a few reviews what content would be suitable for your children.

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